~ Luke 4:1-13 ~
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, goes into the wilderness for forty days where he is tempted by the devil. Thus, are we introduced to Lent; the journey of Lent. At the end of the journey is the celebration of Easter. Before we get there, we have to slog it out in the wilderness of Lent. And right at the beginning of the journey we have to deal with temptation. Why temptation? Well, maybe, just maybe, temptation, as it did Jesus, confronts us as well. And, as it was for Jesus, it is in the wilderness where we face temptation. Or ‘testing’. In fact, ‘testing’ is probably a better word than ‘temptation’. In biblical tradition, it is in the wilderness where we are put to the test. It is where our faith is tested; our trust in God challenged. I think this is the case because it is in the wilderness where we experience discomfort. The experience of discomfort can cause one of two things to happen. Either the discomfort will cause us to give in so we can be comforted or it will spur us on to fight through the discomfort to trust in God; to find comfort despite the circumstances.
When I was a young man, with young legs and young energy, I ran a wilderness-backpacking program. We based it on a model developed by Outward Bound. In signing up for the program, you gave up any pretense of being in control of your life. Now in our hands, we made you do foolhardy things, like walk backwards over the edge of the cliff with nothing but a rope around your waist or climb a sheer rock face with your fingers and toes. We sent you on forced hikes with 50 lb packs. However, the ultimate test of the experience was going ‘solo’. We would put you out all by yourself in the middle of nowhere with only a couple of matches and wish you luck for the next 24 hours. This is when you found out who you really are. It was about living with discomfort of unfamiliar surroundings, of hearing noises in the pitch black of night, of being all by yourself. It was about what you really miss and of what you are afraid. Some people dreamed about their favorite food. Some longed for a safe room with a door to lock and others just wished for a warm bed. Entering the wilderness meant leaving all that behind for a time. The experience exposed how we take the comforts of life for granted. The wilderness exposed how much we had become accommodated to the need to be comfortable.
Now ‘accommodation’ is not a bad word. To be accommodating is a good thing. It simply means to adjust or adapt. The dictionary says it means, “To contain comfortably or have space for.” So, to accommodate to new surroundings is prudent and wise. We accommodate to each other by giving each other space, by practicing toleration, by adapting to our differences. Good stuff.
Yet there is this idea that one can become “too” accommodating. That, as a Christian, you can compromise your values and lifestyle so much that you are virtually indistinguishable from the culture around you. As a result, your witness is so diluted that it is not worth very much.
In my Baptist days, this was the charge I heard repeatedly about liberals. At the beginning of the 20th century the modernist liberals, they claimed, were so concerned about respecting other religions and fitting in that they had become completely diluted, a non-factor as far as Christian witness was concerned. Liberals were written off as irrelevant because they had given into accommodation.
We took pride in our distinctiveness. We weren’t worldly like those apostate liberals. We didn’t dance or drink or smoke or chew or go with girls that do. We maintained high moral standards that separated us from the world. We sought with great vigor to avoid the temptation of accommodation to the culture. We didn’t compromise. As the pastor of my youth said quite often, “Compromise means defeat in due season.”
Yet, my conservative friends aren’t off the hook on this either. Indeed, increasingly so, it appears that conservative Christians are buying into a practice of religion that has very little to do with following Jesus and more and more to do with following a political agenda that seems very foreign to Jesus way of compassion and justice. That has increased 10-fold since November, 2017.
So, it seems the church, liberal and conservative, is always in danger of accommodation to the society. The temptation of accommodation appears to loom large and it is most enticing. We want to avoid the hard testing of the wilderness and instead seek the more comfortable way.
In some sense the testing of Jesus by the devil in the wilderness was about seeking the more comfortable way. Jesus, too, faced the temptation of accommodation. There are many multifaceted layers to this story of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness and we can’t deal with all of them today. However, there is this sense that what the devil offers Jesus is an easy way out. A more comfortable way of accomplishing his purpose. That purpose for Jesus would be to avoid dying on a cross.
Luke puts this episode right after Jesus’ baptism where the Holy Spirit descended on him and heard the affirmation, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then, after a parenthetical section describing the royal lineage of Jesus, Luke has Jesus head out to the wilderness full of the Holy Spirit to be put to the test. What’s interesting is that none of the eyewitnesses of Jesus are privy to any of this. They don’t see the Holy Spirit descend like a dove, they don’t hear the voice from heaven, and they don’t witness the devil putting Jesus to the test. However, the readers of the Gospel hear and see all of this. And so they and we who are the readers know that despite what follows, Jesus relentless march toward the cross, he is up to the task because he has passed the test.
At the end of this episode, it says that the devil departed from him until another opportunity presented itself. Well those opportunities presented themselves repeatedly in Jesus’ ministry as people hailed him as the messiah and king. One of the running themes of the gospels is Jesus’ constant need to put down the kingly notions of taking Jerusalem by force. So the temptation to avoid the cross was constantly thrown in Jesus’ face. The story of the gospels and of this episode in the wilderness is his successful resistance to that temptation even though it meant his death on a cross.
Martin Scorsese’s scandalous movie from 1988, The Last Temptation of Christ, follows the story of Jesus closely up to the moment of the crucifixion. Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1955 novel, it is on the cross that Jesus’ ultimate test is revealed: In the swoon of delirium, he has a dream in which he is taken down from the cross by a guardian angel, marries his sweetheart, Mary Magdalene, and enjoys a normal life, with children and grandchildren. In this dream world, a world without the cross, the unredeemed world appears bare and desolate. He encounters Paul who is preaching a resurrected Jesus so that the people will have something to believe in. Of course, in this dream Jesus didn’t die on the cross so he confronts Paul and calls him a liar. As Jesus, after forty more years of life, nears death Jerusalem is burning, destroyed by the Romans. All this time a guardian angel has accompanied him. The Apostles, now old, broken men, come to see Jesus on his deathbed and reproach him for descending the cross, leaving people without hope. Judas assails Jesus because he betrayed him for nothing; nothing was accomplished. Then in that moment, Jesus realizes that the guardian angel is, indeed, Satan himself. He rejects the fantasy begging the Father to take him back to the cross. In an instant, with complete and eager willingness, he is back on the cross and cries out for all to hear: “It is accomplished!” And he dies.
The temptation—the test—for Jesus in the wilderness, according to the gospel story, is to pass by the difficult way of the cross and go an easier way. By conceding to the devil, Jesus would find a more accommodating way to accomplish his task. Of course, in succumbing to the temptation, he would not accomplish his task—it is all a lie, after all. So, Jesus rejects the devil’s offers and continues on his way—to the cross.
So what is our wilderness test? Well, fortunately it is quite different than Jesus’ test. But it also might be quite different for each one of us, individually. We all have to contend with our own battles. We all have our own comfortable accommodations for which we must contend.
How can we be a distinctive Christian presence that resists too comfortable accommodations that renders us irrelevant? How can we be accommodating to the culture around us in a good sense by being respectful and tolerant yet have something to say and contribute that is uniquely Christian. Although there are many ways we could consider let me suggest two.
The first, I think, is to invest profoundly in the cause of justice. Justice is God’s work in the world. When we engage in causes for justice, we are doing God’s work. Now, obviously, justice is a vast arena. If we make justice part of the warp and woof of our lives, we will see all around us explicit ways to be involved. In a world that is considerably unjust, championing the cause of justice is a most prophetic witness to the world.
Doing justice is the most powerful of disciplines calling for not knowing. Not knowing how it will turn out, not knowing if it is of any use at all. Just not knowing. Not knowing until our hearts break and we discover the world beyond our selfishness and our isolation. Here in our vulnerability, in our broken-heartedness we are given a great gift. The way of justice.
The second way is the way of grace. Grace is God’s work in this world. When we embrace grace, we are participating in the work of grace in this world. In a world characterized by considerable un-grace, championing the cause of grace is a most prophetic witness to the world. One specific aspect of grace that would make us very distinct from the world is that of forgiveness. I still really believe that Christians have barely tapped into the incredible power of forgiveness for our own personal lives and for the world. If we were true practitioners of forgiveness, we would have a profound impact on the world around us. The way of grace.
Justice and grace – they may not be the most comfortable of accommodations, even quite uncomfortable. It’s not like we’re staying at the Fairmont. As we go through this Lenten journey may we continue to learn from, yes, Jesus and be led into a better, more vigorous practice of justice and grace. Amen.